Congregants and their families gathered at New Nation Ministry in Columbia, South Carolina to learn about Tom Steyer.
Congregants at Reid Chapel AME Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Photos: Peyton Fulford

Black Voters in South Carolina Are Searching for One Thing: A Winner

Joe Biden leads in the vast majority of polls in the state. But voters still have questions.

AsAs the rain came down furiously on a Sunday in mid-February, Deborah Lankin-Egleton realized she was facing a choice. She could either continue to support former vice president Joe Biden, or she could jump ship less than two weeks before the state’s primary election. “Tom Steyer, he’s just been that underdog that’s been coming up and planting the seed,” the 54-year-old told GEN as she fumbled with her left earring while sitting in her church, New Nation Ministry, in Columbia, South Carolina. The desire to learn more about Steyer came after hearing a presentation about the billionaire businessman at an after-service lunch, where collard greens and banana pudding were passed around in generous portions. But the real reason she’s still undecided is currently sitting in the Oval Office. “The big thing I want to see,” Lankin-Egleton said, “is who can beat Donald Trump.”

That candidate may not be Biden, she conceded. Steyer, polling third in South Carolina but at just 2% nationally, might not be it either. Lankin-Egleton, who lives in the outskirts of Columbia, said her family and friends are paralyzed by making the wrong choice, a fear that has spread among some Black voters in South Carolina and through the Democratic Party at large. They are either all in for Biden, with his comfortable familiarity, or are still undecided. “I just want to put the strongest candidate [on the ballot],” Lankin-Egleton said.

Deborah Lakin-Egleton wearing a red blazer sits on a chair for a portrait photo. She had previously been set on Joe Biden.
Deborah Lakin-Egleton wearing a red blazer sits on a chair for a portrait photo. She had previously been set on Joe Biden.
Voters like Deborah Lakin-Egleton no longer consider Joe Biden to be the inevitable Democratic nominee.

At this point in 2016, with three primary contests down, it was easier to predict how certain parts of the electorate would behave. African American voters, traditionally the heart of the Democratic Party, were a key demographic that tended to vote as a block. From Jesse Jackson in 1984 to Hillary Clinton in 2016, candidates who have won in South Carolina received more than 70% of the Black vote. “This might be a year where that’s not the case,” Theodore Johnson, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told GEN. “In years past, by the time we get to Super Tuesday, the field has narrowed down to about three viable candidates, even if there are more in the race.”

Around 18% of voters in South Carolina remain undecided just days before voting — a point of stress for Biden, who left New Hampshire on the night of its primary to campaign in Columbia. It’s also a glimmer of opportunity for his challengers. Among pundits, the media, and the political class, there’s an instinct to declare that whatever happens with African American voters on February 29 will be indicative of how the Black community beyond the Deep South will swing. But regional differences, generational differences, and a diversity of policy priorities among African Americans might make 2020 different than other primary elections. It’s entirely possible, Johnson said, that “there’ll be no consensus pick for Black America.”

Biden’s campaign infrastructure in South Carolina, where he has not held as many events as his rivals or spent as much money in advertising, has left him vulnerable despite his healthy polling lead. Some Black voters like Lankin-Egleton, who put pragmatism above anything else, no longer see Biden as Trump’s biggest foe or the inevitable nominee. Just as the field has fractured thanks to the enormous number of candidates running, preventing any of them from winning the majority of voters or delegates in the contests so far, it’s possible that no one candidate will win the majority of the African American vote in South Carolina. “We could be in unprecedented territory, which might mean the Black vote is not the deciding vote,” Johnson said.

A cross shaped mirror hangs on the wall below a clock at the New Nation Ministry in Columbia, South Carolina.
A cross shaped mirror hangs on the wall below a clock at the New Nation Ministry in Columbia, South Carolina.
Reid Chapel AME Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

This would be a nightmare scenario for Biden. South Carolina was supposed to be a sure thing for him, thanks to his deep ties with the African American community, which makes up 60% of the primary electorate there. The fact that Biden was President Obama’s second in command for eight years, touring the country twice with him on the stump, has earned him a lot of goodwill among voters of color. Biden’s long-held strategy has been to use a resounding victory in South Carolina’s primary to catapult himself to success 72 hours later on Super Tuesday, where delegates for 14 states are up for grabs. It’s Hillary Clinton’s playbook from 2016. “If you do well in South Carolina, it is a good predictor of how you’ll do in Alabama, Georgia, another state with similar demographic makeup and political culture,” said Gibbs Knotts, a professor at the College of Charleston and co-author of First in the South, a history of South Carolina’s presidential primaries.

Regional differences, generational differences, and a diversity of policy priorities among African Americans might make 2020 different than other primary elections.

Though Biden has a solid lead on the polls, having so many candidates still in the race has allowed Black voters to take their time shopping around, Knotts said. That this is Biden’s third presidential run and he has yet to win a primary contest during any of them has not helped to quell doubts. It also doesn’t help that he’s lost support nationally after former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg entered the race in November 2019 and Sanders’ state-by-state momentum began to affect national polls. After Biden finished fourth in Iowa’s caucuses and fifth in New Hampshire’s primary, it’s essential that his so-called firewall in the Palmetto State holds. His campaign has positioned him as this year’s comeback kid following his distant second in Nevada. But for some voters, it’s a little too late.

Lakin-Egleton says jobs and the economy are her top issues as a voter. The median household income in Richland County, which includes the city of Columbia and its surroundings, is around $53,900, and the poverty rate is 16.9%. Lakin-Egleton was born and raised in South Carolina and currently works as the state’s resource coordinator for the juvenile justice system. She said she would like to see more jobs for minorities and an increase in the federal minimum wage. Biden and Sanders say they want to raise it to $15, while Steyer says he plans to increase it to $22 per hour, a platform that is certainly appealing to Lakin-Egleton.

Thomas Chisholm, a 39-year-old minister, gazes upward with his hand over his heart. He is inclined to support Tom Steyer.
Thomas Chisholm, a 39-year-old minister, gazes upward with his hand over his heart. He is inclined to support Tom Steyer.
Thomas Chisholm, who works as a minister, supports Tom Steyer because of his criminal justice reform platform.

“Easy! I’m for Tom!” her son-in-law Thomas Chisholm announced loudly when a church leader introduced GEN to attendees. Despite the unfavorable odds he’s facing across the country, Steyer has built the largest campaign operation at the Palmetto State, pouring $14 million into advertising as of early February. Polls show it’s paying off, lifting him in third place in the state behind Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Steyer’s campaign is organizing events regularly all across the state, like the one featuring collard greens and banana pudding at New Nation Ministry, as well as community meetings, block parties, and daily canvassing. Steyer’s presence in South Carolina feels nearly inescapable.

Chisholm, a 39-year-old minister, said he was never for an establishment-backed candidate. Sanders was his number one option up until his heart attack last fall. Of Biden, who is currently polling first in the state, Chisholm said, “Sure he can run to be president, but he has to motivate other people like Obama did.”

Clad in an American flag sweater, Chisholm was a ball of nervous energy as he explained why Steyer has his vote. “I ain’t never seen a president yet who has helped the community, and I feel like Tom will be the right candidate to help us,” he said. One reason he is inclined to support Steyer is his criminal justice reform platform. “Don’t go around the bush saying that ‘he gets this time, he gets probation,’” Chisholm said, emphasizing the sentencing disparities between White people and people of color. “No, it got to be equal.”

TThe moment Jill Biden stepped into a bright, packed-to-the-brim meeting room in Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, the crowd exploded in applause. The former second lady had come out for an “Educators for Biden” town hall as part of her husband’s push in the final stretch before the primary. The room was made up mostly of older Black voters, either teachers or members from the community. As Jill Biden walked in, an older woman got up to hug her and broke down in tears.

The former second lady would later explain that the woman’s mother had recently passed away, and the Bidens had tried to support her through her loss. It was the type of interaction possible only in an intimate setting such as this one and a reminder that the Bidens have always been strong at forming this type of human connection with voters. “We’ve found friends and mentors in your cities and towns,” she told the crowd. “We’ve found respite on your shores. The year 2015, when we lost our son Beau to cancer, the first place we went after was the Lowcountry. I want to thank you, the people here that we know and we love.”

For about 45 minutes, Jill Biden outlined her husband’s education agenda and opened the floor for audience questions on topics ranging from food insecurity among students to how to recruit more teachers of color. “Joe’s plans are practical. They are progressive, but they are achievable,” she said of his proposal to help public school teachers pay off their student loan debt. “He’s not going to give you pie in the sky! ‘Oh, free this, free that, free everything!’ That’s not who Joe Biden is. He knows how he is going to pay for everything he does without raising the national debt.” It was a clear shot at some of her husband’s rivals, and several attendees loudly murmured in agreement.

Hattie Horry, a volunteer with the campaign, says the former vice president is the obvious choice in this election. “I mean, you can’t say anything bad about him,” she said. “He’s a perfect candidate.” A retired certified nursing assistant, Horry has been volunteering for campaigns up and down the ballot in the state for the past three decades. She said the decision to help Biden get elected came naturally to her. “I liked him since the Biden and Obama presidency,” she said. Horry’s most important issue is health care, and she said that she supports Biden’s plan to improve what is already in the Affordable Care Act. Horry clearly feels like the former vice president has her back.

Rev. Carey Grady has welcomed nearly all of the candidates and their surrogates to his congregation.

That’s part of the message Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta was tasked with delivering on behalf of the Biden team to the congregation of Reid Chapel AME Church in Columbia. It’s common for Black voters across the nation to look to their local leaders, including their pastors, for guidance on who to support in elections. Though churches can’t make outright endorsements, an invitation to come to worship services is typically seen as an implicit vote of support. At Reid Chapel, however, that has not been the case.

Rev. Carey Grady said that he welcomed several candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang, Bill de Blasio — and their surrogates over the past year. “The church said, ‘We don’t wanna be biased, so if one comes, then all of them should come. The congregation made that decision,’” Grady told GEN. “I’m a pastor who believes the church must be involved in the community.”

Reid Chapel, which has about 450 members, is part of an organization called More Justice, a coalition of 33 congregations across faith lines that is involved with work in the community. Grady said some of their top concerns include affordable health care and housing, along with gun violence. He said having people like Kenyatta come “allows people in the pews to get involved in the political process.” Grady added, “We’re not endorsing anybody.”

Tom Steyer has built the largest campaign operation at the Palmetto State, pouring $14 million into advertising. Polls show it’s paying off.

The state lawmaker said he traveled to Columbia because “the future of the country is at stake.” In Kenyatta’s address to the congregation, and in an interview with GEN, he insisted that Biden is the one candidate who can “fix a lot of the ways the Trump presidency has taken us backward in terms of his policies for poor and working people and in communities of color, like the one we’re in right now.”

On Wednesday, Biden scored the coveted endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn, known as the godfather of South Carolina Democratic politics. “Our challenge is making the greatness of this country accessible and affordable for all,” Clyburn said at a press conference announcing his support. “Nobody with whom I’ve ever worked in public life is any more committed to that motto, that pledge that I have to my constituents than Joe Biden.”

Not all voters of color are drawn to the type of incrementalism the former vice president is selling. On the day I visited Bernie Sanders’ Charleston headquarters, there was a flurry of activity as the team pushed for a “get out to vote” canvassing blitz. The office was decorated with Bernie 2020 posters, a life-sized cardboard cutout of the senator, and maps of voting districts in the region. Volunteers arrived to support the local team, traveling from New York and Florida, and even as far as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. It’s crunch time for the campaign, and Nivia Bruner wants everyone to hear about Sanders’ political revolution.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta regularly speaks to congregations as a surrogate for Joe Biden. “The future of the country is at stake,” he says.

Bruner is a retired social worker and cancer survivor, which she said exposed her firsthand to the inequalities in the American health care system. Sanders’ Medicare for All platform spoke to her, and she volunteered for the campaign then. Now, retired and living with her husband in Charleston, Bruner has spent eight months helping the campaign’s scrappy efforts to push Sanders across the finish line — or at least make Biden’s win a narrow one.

“There’s something about the way he talks and delivers his message that you can feel the truth. It’s always consistent, and it is just so honest,” Bruner said. “He’s real. He is not somebody who has to have his platform scripted for him. You can tell it comes from his heart.”

After our interview, Bruner sent GEN to canvass around North Charleston with Liz Harder, a 27-year-old volunteer who had driven up from Gainesville, Florida, for the weekend. It was the first time Harder, who described herself as an introvert, had gone canvassing. With the clock hitting 4 p.m., Harder had only so much time before the sun set. (“No canvassing after dark” was one of the top three instructions she received at HQ.) Armed with an internal campaign app that tracks people’s voter registration status, Harder went around a quiet residential neighborhood knocking on doors.

Most people in her target area did not answer, so she tucked some Bernie 2020 literature under their doormats. Three Black residents — two women and one man — were polite enough to come to their porches and hear Harder’s pitch before saying they supported Sanders. They all complained that a lot of canvassers from the campaigns had been knocking on their doors all day long. Steyer’s campaign had been there first. She placed Sanders flyers next to Tom Steyer 2020 pamphlets and moved on to the next house.

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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